Petit Robert Central

Jacky's empire strikes back
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  December 8, 2010

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NICE RACK: Petit Robert Central shouldn’t work — but it does, offering inauthentic yet delicious fare like these lamb chops on ratatouille.

Jacky Robert's formula of pre-Julia-Child-style French restaurants can be as fake as chop suey. The new, larger, and posher version is at a fake address — you enter at 35 Summer Street, which has signs falsely proclaiming it 101 Arch — yet the place has developed a certain panache. Also, it's rather cheap for downtown. And, you know, the food is pretty good. You can have fun there. Sure, the bread is flown in from Montreal, and the fusion dishes can be very silly, but it's a great room (used to be Vinalia; before that it was Dakota's Steak House). The new place is all wrong on paper, but it feels right, and the feeling carries you along.

Actually the bread from Montreal is half-baked French bread, so they re-bake it and serve it hot, with sweet butter. It is delicious. House-made salt cod brandade ($12) is a dish of Central and Southern France (Jacky is from Normandy) for which one pounds salt cod, olive oil, and milk into a paste. The great chef Raymond Oliver writes that it "emphatically does not contain potatoes." At Petit Robert Central it not only contains potatoes, they are lumpy so you can't mistake them. But the fact is, brandade with potatoes is very good to eat. It's still a dip, but the potatoes dilute the salt and most of the fishy qualities of salt cod, and you get a very nice dip with your crusty hot French bread. A meal is shaping up. Fried duck confit with kimchee sushi roll ($12) is three maki, of some kind of red rice, wrapped around a big piece of cured duck leg and a teensy bit of mild kimchee, and it is ghastly fusion and perfectly good eating.

So is a beet-and-soft-goat-cheese salad ($12), even if all the beets are all red (which is, after all, the best flavored kind). The salad is all frisée, with cubes of goat cheese and a mustard-y dressing, and we ate every bit. Romaine heart, roquefort, and vinaigrette ($12) was in fact made of chopped romaine lettuce and blue cheese, and if the creamy pink dressing was a vinaigrette, well, I'm a 1956 Chevy Bel Air with two-tone paint. But whatever it was, it was one of the best salad dressings ever.

Back at Chez Jacky (now called "Jacky's Table") I engaged in some badinage with the waitress about refusing to serve me the last order of tripes à la Provençal. With a slow-cooked stew, the last order is the very best. Well, I finally got the tripe at PR Central ($17), and while Provence is the complete other side of France from Normandy (and there is a classic Norman version of tripe from Caen), this is a real recipe. The key is using several kinds of tripe (book and honeycomb) for textural variety, and leaving just enough of it unscraped for an aroma of slight corruption. The tomato sauce holds it together, and my only complaint is that the portion was sized for someone who didn't really like tripe as much as I do.

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